'I Would Sell Any Horse at Any Time': Ludwig Svennerstal Has Eyes on Tokyo, but His Strategically Built Business Comes First

'I Would Sell Any Horse at Any Time': Ludwig Svennerstal Has Eyes on Tokyo, but His Strategically Built Business Comes First

“... handsome, clever, and rich… seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence.”

This statement, the opening paragraph of Jane Austen’s classic novel “Emma”, could, at first glance, sum up Swedish eventer Ludwig Svennerstal rather than Austen's title character. The UK-based rider – who achieved his dream of riding at the Olympics way back in London at only 21 years old – now has his sights set on a third go at the Olympic Games, this time in Tokyo in the year 2020. With around 12 horses to compete at the advanced level next year – half his string – from which he will whittle down his choice for Tokyo 2020, he seems like a fortunate young man indeed.

What makes him much more interesting is that, in just a handful of years, he has turned his youthful passions into a properly successful business. Ludwig has approached the sport of eventing, which is light years behind most sports in terms of financially viable professional careers for its participants, with a combination of business skills, a vision of the future, and horsemanship – and he’s thriving.

BUILDING A BUSINESS

How has he carved out so much success at such a young age in a sport where many others face so much difficulty?

“I think the difference is that I would sell any horse at any time,” he says. “You need to see it as a business transaction and do the deal with your brain and not with your heart. It’s very difficult, and it sounds harsh when I say it, but that’s when it works."

“People always try to keep their best horse and sell their [lesser ones]. They value their horse through their emotions, and that makes them put too high a price on it. So they don’t reach a deal and don’t sell it. Then they hit a point where they do want to sell it, and then no one wants it. When people want to buy the horse, for sure it will be the time when you least want to sell it.”

Photo by Nico Morgan.

Ludwig knows this only too well – he has sold horses before championships and ridden lesser horses at those championships in their place. But it was the sale of a group of horses in the two years after London 2012 – Shamwari, Alexander, Livingstone, and Tempranillo – that built the foundations of his business. It might be easy to think that Ludwig is “just” a horse dealer. However, everything he does is part of a very carefully thought-out, clear-sighted plan that should, in time, deliver personal competitive success at the highest level.

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He explains: “As I see it now, I have two groups of horses. There are the ones that belong to owners, who don’t have selling as the main thing. The other group I mostly own, or own with other people, and they are here to be sold. That side is slowly getting smaller and the other group is getting bigger. The ideal balance would be half and half; I’m not quite there yet but I am getting there.”

He continues, with a laugh: “What I like most is producing horses – that is my favourite thing. But it would be quite nice to go to a big championship knowing the horse has been with you for long enough, that it isn’t too young, that it has the right experience – it isn’t just there because the horse you were meant to take got sold and you had to take another one!”

Photo by Sportfot.

While he's explaining the business side of things, we are sitting in his cottage in Gloucestershire, a few miles from Mark Phillips’ Aston Farm, where Ludwig has based his horses for the past year. Before that, he was at Sir Mark Todd’s Badgerstown, but his growing number of horses necessitated a move. The indoor school at Aston Farm is, he says, a Godsend.

“I’ve got 23 horses in work, and with that many, if you are riding outside all of the time, when you get to the eighth, 10th horse of the day and it is raining, it can be difficult to find motivation. You can find yourself rushing. Indoors, your quality of riding is so much higher because you are undisturbed, you can take your time and find a different level of focus,” he says.

TRAINING WITH INTENT

2019 will be a watershed year for Ludwig. We have now passed the mid-point in the Olympic cycle, and it is around that four-year cycle that everything for him revolves.

“For me, the main show is [always] the Olympics,” he says. “It is the main thing I really care about. Of course, the other big shows are important, but the Olympics is the one to win. If you are in eventing, you have a lot of respect for Badminton and Burghley, but if you are outside the sport, they don’t hold half as much weight. People don’t understand how tough they are. But even if you aren’t interested in sport [of any kind], you can relate to an Olympic gold medal.”

Olympic Games, thus far, have been the significant staging-posts in his young career. The London Games on Shamwari was the start of it: a teenager’s dream fulfilled. He bought Shamwari as a six-year-old, and four years later there they were, finishing 20th individually at London 2012.

“[At that time] I thought producing horses was easy!” he admits.

He then took an eight-year-old, Aspe – who was later sold with Ireland’s Michelle Kenny taking the ride – to Rio. They completed, in 27th place, but that Games made Ludwig take a long, hard look at what he was doing and reevaluate his strategy. The process of producing a horse for the Olympics had been rushed, and he would need to do things differently for Tokyo.

Photo by Sportfot.

When pressed as to which horse he thinks he will ride in 2020, he says: “I have no idea. At this point, I have so many good ones – horses who are eight or nine now – that it’s insane. They have all been very promising so far, but this year [2019] we will see how good they really are and what will become of them.”

And while four-stars, which we must learn to call five-stars, are on the agenda for 2019, they are not ultimately an important part of the game plan.

“In 2020 I don’t think I will ride at many four-stars before Tokyo. It can be a good thing – you can see from the World Equestrian Games that the Brits were competing ‘down a level’ and made it look so easy – and many horses can do well at four-stars and championships, but it is not always necessary to get championship results. And sometimes an extra risk with taking them to another level, so for the next few years championships will come first.

“The show I would most like to win apart from the Olympics is Aachen, because I have so much respect for what they do there, and because I think it is always bringing the sport forward.

How exactly is CHIO Aachen moving horse sport forward? Go inside the show's big plans for modernizing the equestrian competition.

"Badminton and Burghley are steeped in history, which will always make them iconic, but sometimes I feel that also holds them back in some areas. For example, still using a grass arena without proper drainage is a joke. In Aachen, you will never be able to say you didn’t win because the conditions were bad, because they are as good and fair as they can possibly be. The horse is the focus.

Photo by Sportfot.

“The culture of Badminton is amazing, but the last time I rode there was 2014 when I finished eighth on Alexander. It was a very wet year, and I was wondering, what is this? Jumping on the last day on that grass – I felt sorry for my horse. For me, the sport is moving forward and for me, the format in Aachen is the best for the horses.”

But what about the stamina element of the traditional four-star, which has long been the mark of a really top horse?

He says: “The horses that do get in the top few at these events are exceptional horses, but I also think 99 percent of these horses that have won and will win four-stars can win any short-format three-stars if they were aimed and peaked for those events... I think the Event Rider Masters series is fantastic – a much more attractive competition and possibly the way forward.”

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER

Ludwig is unmistakably bright, unafraid to voice his opinions, and can do so with clarity. Certainly, he received generous funding from his supportive family in order to reach that first Olympics in London, but in the six-and-a-half years since, he has reached a point of self-sufficiency and business success that would be the envy of a great many top riders. The most fascinating part comes in the next decade – can he achieve those goals of individual medals on horses he has produced himself while managing enough turnover to give himself a decent living?

A big part of Ludwig's post-Rio/pre-Tokyo analysis involved asking New Zealander Karyn Shuter to come on to his team to manage and advise. She is best known for performing that role for Oliver Townend during his rise to world number one. Karyn would not have come on board if she did not think Ludwig had a very real business with great potential to develop further – and the ability as a rider to back it up.

This is modern eventing’s template: where business, horsemanship, and exceptional riding and training come together.

Feature photo by Sportfot.

Written by Amber Heintzberger

Freelance writer and photographer Amber Heintzberger lives outside New York City with her husband and children. She grew up riding and is a graduate "H-A" member of the Greenville Foothills Pony Club. As often as possible, she loves to spend time on her parents' horse farm in Upstate South Carolina.